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Dementia and Hearing Loss

Results of a recent study suggest that persons with hearing loss may be at a greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. Dr. Luigi Ferrucci, chief of the U.S. National Institute on Aging’s Longitudinal Studies section and director of the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, reported on the research in the journal Archives of Neurology, along with his colleagues.

Researchers studied the possible association between hearing loss and dementia, with subjects including 639 men and women between the ages of 36 and 90. At the beginning of the study, in 1990, none of these people showed signs of dementia. Cognition and hearing were tested periodically, through 2008. A total of 184 subjects were classified as having varying degrees of hearing loss, and 58 were diagnosed as having dementia. When analyzing the gathered data, investigators determined that there was a correlation between the degree of hearing loss and the risk of development of dementia. It was reported that for every 10 decibels of hearing lost the risk of dementia appeared to go up 20%.

This study has already garnered quite a bit of attention from the research community and from others. The authors, themselves, state that further research is needed before any real conclusions can be drawn from the data. Areas of possible additional study include determining if this information could lead to new strategies for decreasing the risk of developing dementia, including whether the correction of hearing loss through hearing aids and surgery, among other methods, might aid in the prevention of dementia. However, Dr. Farrucci himself states that a lot more work needs to be done before a definite causal relationship between hearing loss and dementia can be documented.

It has also been suggested that, just as some forms of hearing loss can be attributed to damage to certain kinds of nerve cells, there might be a similar form of damage to nerve cells associated with cognition and memory. But, again, further research is needed to prove or deny such an assertion.

A third possibility that has been proposed deals with the social isolation that so often accompanies hearing loss in some people, and with the evidence that cognitive stimulation can help to prevent or limit the development of dementia. Could it be that this social isolation can be the contributory factor in the risk for dementia, as much or instead of neurological factors? Or could there be other, additional, factors to be considered here?

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